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An opportunity missed
on 1 August 2017
DeLillo’s eighth novel must be one of his more accessible novels although it is over-written leaving this reader disappointed. The first part is a blunt satire on the campus novel and focuses on Professor J. A. K. Gladney who [despite not speaking a word of German] teaches Hitler Studies at the College-on-the-Hill, Blacksmith [‘a town of dry cleaning shops and opticians’], within the Department of Popular Culture. Its bombastic Head has his collection of pre-war soda pop bottles on permanent display].
Gladney, who has married five times, lives with his wife, Babette [a teacher of posture to retirees], and a collection of wonderfully abnormal children and step children, including Heinrich [an infuriating know-all whose hair is already receding at 14 and who plays correspondence chess with a multiple killer], Denise [whose concerns about carcinogens cause her to read Physicians Desk Reference from cover to cover] and Steffie [who is addicted to burning toast]. Babette and Gladley are both obsessed by death and when a visiting lecturer Murray J. Siskind, unable to teach Elvis Studies, proposes a seminar on Car Crashes [‘Cars with cars. Cars with trucks. Trucks with buses. Motorcycles with cars. Cars with helicopters. Trucks with trucks. …. They mark the suicide wish of technology’.] opportunities arise for the three of them to discuss the topic. The white noise of Americans living, working and above all consuming is an obvious target and DeLillo can hardly miss. As Murray says ‘Here we don't die, we shop’.
The satirical humour is more blunt than pointed but still the link to the much darker second part is disjointed. Here a rail accident causes a leak of toxic Nyodene D, leading to the evacuation of the surrounding towns. Gladney is annoyed [‘I don't see myself fleeing an airborne toxic event. That's for people who live in mobile homes out in the scrubby parts of the county, where the fish hatcheries are.’] but follows orders. When he leaves his car to get petrol he is exposed to the airbourne material, much to the consternation [and interest] of SIMUVAC – Simulated Evacuation – officials; will he now die in twenty years or forty? And exactly when does a Simulation become Reality?
The family spend nine days away from home before it is judged safe to return. However, in the final [and best] part Babette’s fear of dying has increased, causing her to seek a solution behind her husband’s back. However, her changed behavior worries the family and leads Gladney, increasingly influenced by Murray, to contemplate an irreversible act.
Whilst the almost impenetrable language that Gladley and Murray use in their discussions about the future and death pokes fun at academics it soon began to wear. Having created a series of comic, and in some cases, cartoon characters DeLillo cannot restrain his love of language sufficiently to unite his thinking. From the opening page he is enthralled by lists - ‘The roofs of the station wagons were loaded down with carefully secured suitcases full of light and heavy clothing; with boxes of blankets, boots and shoes, and books, sheets, pillows, quilts; with rolled-up rugs and sleeping bags; with bicycles, skis, rucksacks, English and Western saddles, inflated rafts.’ Frequent visits to shopping malls allow him to describe the quantity, quality and colour of the goods on offer, and the key to securing them ‘Mastercard, Visa, American Express’.
The metaphysical discussions between Gladney and Murray begin to pall and this becomes all the more obvious when in the final pages the compulsive character of Sister Hermann Marie is introduced. DeLillo is frighteningly prescient when listing psychics’ predictions ‘’Members of an air-crash cult will hijack a jumbo jet and crash it into the White House in an act of blind devotion’. This book was published in 1985.
A blunt satire propelling all before it but it could have been much more, 7/10.
[The reviews here are very muddled, with references to a CD and to other novels by DeLillo. Action please Amazon].